Monday, October 31, 2011

Review - Weekend

The structure of Weekend couldn't be more tried-and-tested. Two people meet, they make an instant connection, they begin to get to know each other but they only have a limited amount of time to spend in each other's company before one has to depart. If you're now thinking of Brief Encounter, or perhaps Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, then you've got a rough idea of Weekend's tone, but it's the nature of the content that sets it apart. Those aforementioned movies were all about heterosexual relationships whereas Weekend is about two men who meet in a bar, enjoy a one-night stand, and then quickly realise that their relationship has taken on a weight and dimension that neither of them anticipated.

It begins on an ordinary Friday night in Nottingham, as Russell (Tom Cullen), a softly spoken lifeguard, leaves a family party and heads for a gay nightclub. After a few drinks and some tentative flirting, he takes Glen (Chris New) back to his flat and we pick the story up the next morning, as a typical post-coital awkwardness hangs in the air. Glen pulls out a tape recorder and asks Russell to recount the events of the night before, something that he does after every sexual encounter for an art project he is working on, and this acts as an icebreaker while also reveal something of the two characters. Glen is sharp-witted, brash and open about his sexuality and Russell is a little more circumspect; he's out of the closet, but only to his closest friends, and he is wary of public displays of homosexual affection.

Watching how these two characters interact, becoming more open and intimate and sharing more of themselves with each other, is the joy of Weekend. Writer/director Andrew Haigh creates an atmosphere and builds a rhythm that allows the actors to relax completely into their roles, and it's the contrast between them that makes the relationship so intriguing. As Saturday morning progresses into Saturday afternoon and then Saturday night, the pair have sex again, but for the most part Weekend is a film built on conversation. Russell and Glen talk about themselves, about their lives, about their plans for the future and about the perception of gay culture in modern Britain. Even when these exchanges grow more politically charged, it never feels forced, as if Haigh is imposing an agenda on the film. The dialogue, fuelled by drink and some recreational drugs, maintains the natural flow of a couple who feel increasingly at ease in each other's company.

At one point in Weekend, Glen discusses his art project and says, "Gays will only come because they’re hoping to see some cock, and they’ll be disappointed. Straights won’t come because it’s about gay sex." As he watched this scene play out, I wonder if Haigh intended it as a commentary on the commercial prospects for his film? Weekend is gay film, very much concerned with the details of gay relationships and society, but it deserves to have an impact beyond that niche audience. It's a film that is so honest about relationships, about the ability of one person to communicate their true feelings to another, and about the importance of making the right decision at the right time, that surely viewers of any persuasion will recognise some truth in it. For many audiences, its chief pleasure will be a simple one – as we watch the film end on a perfect note, we are reminded how rare it is to see a contemporary cinematic romance that feels honest, intelligent and real.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Review - Machine Gun Preacher

Have you ever watched a film based on a true story and felt that you'd prefer to be watching a documentary on the subject instead? I felt that way as the credits rolled on Machine Gun Preacher, during which we see footage and photographs of the film's inspiration, Sam Childers. A drug-using ex-con who rode with biker gangs in early 90's Pennsylvania, Childers later found God and dedicated his life to protecting children in war-torn Sudan and Uganda – amazing story, right? It's the kind of story that filmmakers dream of, offering a perfect arc of redemptive character development as well as numerous action scenes and plenty of abandoned orphans to tug at the heartstrings. The strange thing about Machine Gun Preacher is that while it appears to perfectly fit a familiar narrative structure, actually fitting the story to that structure does it no favours whatsoever.

We first meet Sam when he is released from jail, being met by his loyal wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) who has surprising news for him. She underwent a religious conversion while Sam was inside, but after angrily upbraiding her for quitting her steady job as a stripper, Sam goes straight back to his old ways, stealing and taking drugs with buddy Donnie (Michael Shannon, always watchable in a thankless role). Eventually, however, after hitting rock bottom, Sam does join his wife at a service where the Lord, moving in mysterious ways, opens his eyes to a new path. A preacher from Africa comes to town and delivers a sermon that inspires him to travel to Africa, build an orphanage and take up arms against the militia enslaving children across the country. These are all decisions that he takes very quickly.

That's the problem with Marc Forster's film. Sam's evolution from wild man to mercenary happens swiftly and without a real sense of friction, so the emotional catharsis we're expected to experience feels unearned. Forster and screenwriter Jason Keller are unwilling or unable to delve into the conflict at the heart of the title – a man of God who is also a man of violence – and so we have a film that seems to be two pictures awkwardly spliced together. Whenever Sam is plagued by self-doubts, starts alienating his family with his obsessive zeal or rages at the reluctance shown by his rich neighbours to put their hands in their pockets, the scenes feel trite and are played out in a perfunctory manner, and Forster generally seems much happier with the parts of the film that allow his hero to perform Rambo-like heroics. To be fair, that's also where Gerard Butler seems happiest, as we get the sense very early on that his emotional range is being stretched to breaking point by the demands of this character.

Machine Gun Preacher has moments that grip and moments that nearly move, but is that the skill of the filmmaking and acting producing such an effect, or is it simply the strength of the real life tale that the movie is telling? I'd suspect it's the latter, as the bungling approach by the filmmakers can be epitomised by one appalling misjudgement – when the traumatised little orphan who refuses to speak for the whole movie suddenly opens up to Sam at a crucial critical juncture. The exchange reeks of artifice; a scene intended to have the audience weeping but one that will surely have any right-thinking viewer raging at the open manipulation instead. Machine Gun Preacher is based on a remarkable true story; trust Hollywood to turn it into a risibly fake one.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Review - The Ides of March

The presidential candidate George Clooney plays in The Ides of March seems too good to be true. Intelligent, handsome and charming, Governor Mike Morris also has all the right answers to questions posed in interviews and at debates. He makes his position clear on foreign policy, gun crime, the death penalty and abortion – in each case, offering thoughtful, compassionate arguments – and he refuses to let religion cloud the issue, telling the crowd at one debate that, "My religion is a piece of paper – the Constitution of the United States of America." Of course, if something seems too good to be true then it probably is, and the dramatic twist at the heart of The Ides of March concern Morris's unwise dalliance with a young intern (Evan Rachel Wood) and what damage it might do to the campaign. "You can lie, you can cheat, you can start a war, you can bankrupt the country," the governor's aide Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) explains, "but you can't fuck the intern."

Meyers, rather than Morris, is the main protagonist in Clooney's film, an adaptation of Beau Willimon's stage play Farragut North. Meyers is an idealist whose passions are stirred by the bright future that Morris heralds, but as we all know, politics is a grubby business, and The Ides of March is about his youthful optimism and naïveté coming up against cynicism of political machinations. The older aide Meyers works alongside, Philip Seymour Hoffman's Paul Zara, knows how to play this game all too well, with he and his Republican counterpart Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) personifying the bitter, jaded mood of men who have spent a lifetime fighting dirty. Early on in the film Hoffman and Giamatti share a great scene behind the stage at a televised debate, with the pair sniping at each other like the old pros they are, and I'd like to have seen more of that in the film. Instead, The Ides of March focuses on Meyers' growing disillusionment with and eventual manipulation of Morris, hence the film's rather obvious title.

The Ides of March works as a perfectly enjoyable political yarn but it exists totally on the surface. As in Drive, Gosling suggests a kind of blankness rather than the depth or conflict that his directors are clearly searching for in those lingering close-ups. His character arc is predictable but Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov do throw in a couple of neat twists that liven the narrative up (even if they make Evan Rachel Wood little more than a sacrificial lamb, tossed aside in an offhand manner), and as a director he ensures the film is always slick, efficient and entertaining. What the film ultimately lacks is a genuine sense of cynicism or a darkness at its heart, or perhaps a real sense of consequence to the actions that the characters take. Clooney's attempt to expose the moral corruption at the centre of American politics feels a bit tentative, and it's why The Ides of March only plays as a diverting drama rather than a memorable one.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Review - Anonymous

William Shakespeare and Roland Emmerich – it couldn't be a better combination, could it? The English wordsmith responsible for some of the greatest plays and most iconic characters of all time, and the German director for whom words and characters are of secondary importance to huge explosions. Emmerich has made a career from destroying major cities and iconic landmarks, but in his new film Anonymous he has turned his attention to the attacking reputation of a single man, as he explores the notion that Shakespeare didn't actually write the extraordinary body of work that is attributed to him. There have been many debates over the true authorship of Shakespeare's plays, but this theory, scripted by John Orloff, suggests that all of his writing actually emerged under the quill of Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford.

According to Anonymous, De Vere (played by Rhys Ifans) was the true literary genius; a man who (if one of the film's many flashbacks is to be believed) wrote and performed A Midsummer Night's Dream as a child and continued to write in secret for the rest of his days. Such lowly activity apparently brought shame upon his family ("You're...writing again!" his wife exclaims, in the tone of a woman discovering her husband's affair) in this puritanical age, and therefore De Vere needs somebody to claim credit for his works. He approaches playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) but this position is usurped by bawdy, drunken actor William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), who immediately lets the widespread acclaim for "his" plays go to his head (even crowdsurfing at one point. Seriously).

Spall's characterisation of Shakespeare as a reckless, opportunistic loudmouth is cheap, but it's also the film's most entertaining element and it made me wish that Anonymous would unfold as a comedic Blackadder-style romp, but Emmerich mostly plays it with a straight bat. He concocts a complex web of intrigue to explain De Vere's motivations – suggesting that Polonius and Richard III were thinly veiled caricatures of his political rivals – but such densely plotted shenanigans are not this director's forte, and he quickly loses his grasp on the flashback-heavy structure. By the time Emmerich got around to portraying the Virgin Queen (played by both Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave) as a harlot who had illegitimate children hidden all over London, I was both confused and bored. Anonymous would be most palatable as high camp, but while it does offer moments of unintentional hilarity, it's too long and too ponderous to entertain on that level.

As Anonymous arrives in cinemas some have wondered what the effect of the film will be on our perception of Shakespeare and – more importantly – on how younger generations will view him. They needn't worry, because this is nothing more than a bloated and silly period soap opera that's too trivial to have any merit, even if the presence of noted Shakespeare-sceptics Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance in the cast may seem to give it a veneer of credibility. Shakespeare's reputation has endured over two centuries of questioning by a variety of great writers and thinkers, so I'm confident it will survive an exposé from the man who made 10,000 BC without sustaining much lasting damage.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"At the end of the filming I felt I was totally dry, I didn't know if I could even cry" - An interview with Gerardo Naranjo and Stephanie Sigman

Gerardo Naranjo's thrilling new film Miss Bala drops its audience right into the heart of the Mexican drug wars alongside its terrified, bewildered protagonist – a young woman who just wanted to be a beauty queen. It's a sensational film that showcases both its director's visual and storytelling flair and a lead performance of raw emotion from an actress making her film debut, and it simultaneously succeeds as a gripping action movie and a look at the criminality and corruption that appears to be endemic in Mexican society. I met both Gerardo Naranjo and Stephanie Sigman last week when they were in town for the London Film Festival to talk about it.

Gerardo, you wrote your previous two films yourself but on this film you worked with a co-writer, Mauricio Katz. Why did you make that choice and how did you work together on the screenplay?

Gerardo Naranjo I don't really consider myself a writer. I write what I want to see but I invited my friend to help me be more clear about what I wanted to see. What happened with Drama/Mex and I'm Gonna Explode was that I made these movies that were eight hours long, you know, it was just based on improvisation and they had a playfulness. I think I was that kind of person back then, but it was very painful because everything was extended and I had to cut these eight-hour movies back to two. When I decided to make Miss Bala I said I was going to start making the film I wanted to make, so I had to discover what that precise film was and I think having a writer with me helped me discover that. He also helped me find the ways in which I was lying to myself. For example, I would say, "In this scene they kidnap her and take her to the headquarters, and I want to see that in real time." He would tell me that if I wanted the sequence in real time it would be five minutes on the screen, so I would decide that we need to see an ellipsis of that. I needed him for time administration.

Even though you decided against the five-minute shot you do have a number of very long and complicated takes in Miss Bala.

GN It was all about the internal time of the actions that Stephanie does. I explain to her in the best way I could that her actions were going to define the rhythms of the film. She had to know the rhythm by herself and once she knew it then that was going to be the rhythm of the film. She and the other actors brought the emotion by themselves. I didn't tell them what they were feeling in the scene, I just created a situation and they were reacting to it.

Stephanie, what was it like for you to be at the centre of scenes like the gunfight, when you're reacting to such chaos?

Stephanie Sigman Well, it really was chaos! [Laughs] Gerardo was talking about the rhythm and we did all the scenes of the movie on video first, to work out the choreography. We did it without the emotions or the guns, but it really helped me because I knew what every shot was going to be like, and then I knew it was going to be tough and emotionally and physically tiring. It was a dark process, being this character, but it was also about trusting the people you work with. I think Noe (Hernandez, who plays the leader of the cartel) is an amazing actor and he gave me everything to work with because he really scared me a lot. It wasn't easy and there were moments when I thought I wasn't going to finish it, but I carried on because I didn't feel alone in that process.

This is your first film role. I understand you've just done some TV shows in the past.

SS Yeah, but I haven't done that much.

GN When I cast her she hadn't done it, and then she signed up to do it and I was very angry.

SS He was very angry!

GN I wanted a virgin! [Laughs]

SS It's an incredibly intense role because Laura spends the whole film in a state of fear and anxiety. Was it tough for you to sustain such extreme emotions?

SS It can be easy to do something like that because it's not like you're constantly frustrated and you cannot explode. At the end of the filming I felt I was totally dry, I didn't know if I could even cry. It's part of doing something that's a challenge for everyone and you want to give all that you can give to the project. I don't know, I enjoyed it somehow, maybe I'm a masochist. [Laughs]

It's interesting to see the drug wars from the point of view of an innocent and an outsider rather than a cop, criminal or agent. Did you feel you had to take a fresh perspective on this subject?

GN There is a ton of material being done about crime in Mexico and most of it is completely surreal or ridiculous. There are movies that are very comedic or farcical in tone and they are doing very well. I was so surprised by this and I feel there is almost an agenda to show crime in a light, entertaining way. That was very strange to me because I had this perception that crime was something very different, and when we went on to research we found out that the crime world is very ignorant, pathetic and grey. We didn't find gold chains or girls all around, you know, we didn't find people having a great time. We found a lot of paranoia and people who were very mistrustful of the people around them. We felt it was a good opportunity to talk about that because nobody was saying that crime was an ugly world, everybody was fixated on this Scarface promotion, and I don't think crime in Mexico has that side. Even the biggest drug lords live a very pathetic life; they are not in a luxury castle but in these dark apartments hiding. It was very important for me to talk about that, to show how these criminals behave and how much they lack a sense of morality. It was kind of an anthropological statement.

How has the film been received in Mexico?

GN It has certainly been very controversial. I think there are many people who think that if we don't look at it and we evade the subject, then maybe it will disappear. We think we have to look at the phenomenon in the face, identify it, and only then can we start to solve it. Many people think we are talking badly about the country, we are not patriots, we are doing the country harm, but we don't think so. I think the first thing we knew would happen with this movie was the controversy but we wanted to people to discuss it and the box office is very good, so a lot of people are seeing it and either loving it or hating it.

SS It's 50/50 in Mexico. A lot of people hate the movie, and a lot of people hate my performance in the movie – "Call that acting? It's so easy!" – but I think it's perfect what is happening with the movie.

GN I think it reflects how polarised our society is. It's so weird to me when people talk about criminals as bad Mexicans and good Mexicans, but I want to ask what is the seed of a bad Mexican? I think it's a country that doesn't give the same opportunities to everybody, and a country that can have the richest person in the world and the poorest. The country gives so few opportunities to people that some kids decide to join this "suicide club," which is a life of crime. They know they will be killed, they know it will be a five-year action, which is the average action for a life of crime in Mexico, but they have no other future. I think we should talk about a country that has lost its sense of community. I don't think the movie attacks the criminals or the government, I think it attacks the community,

SS There are a lot of reasons why this is happening and it's so easy to blame the president or to blame the cartel, but I think this movie makes the story personal for people, to make them understand and...I'm sounding like a Miss. [Laughs]

You're such a method actor, you're still in character.

SS I want world peace! [Laughs]

What was it like shooting in the areas where this sort of crime happens regularly?

SS I was really focused on what I was doing, but I'm sure there was a lot they didn't tell me...

GN I think we were very tight as a group and very clear. The first thing was to protect the group and we said we were shooting a film called Madame Bonita, a title that inferred we were making a romantic comedy, something very lovable, and we never told people we were making a crime movie. Certainly, we felt the influence of these guys, but that's just common life, I mean, when you see the black truck with tinted windows you don't wonder about who these guys are. When I did research I met a lot of criminals, in jail or active, and their words were very practical: if you mess with them you get punished. We tried to be respectful and in the movie we made our own cartel, so we didn't make the movie about them, it's much more a movie about a feeling or something that is in the air.

There's a scene in the film when Laura goes to a policeman for help and in that single take we slowly realise that he is driving her back into danger. The scene suggests that corruption is everywhere, so how can the problems in Mexican society be rectified when that's the case?

GN I think this is the climax of something, a concept that you have to be quicker or more sassy than the other one so you can get ahead. We have focused so much on the greed and getting ahead of the rest that we have lost sight of the fact that there has to be rules, and there has to be a way of doing things. Everybody is having his own battle to survive and the rules or the law don't exist, so I feel that we need a spiritual revolution. If we feel like we need to take the rules into account and we start to consider ourselves as a group, then things will get easier for everybody, but I don't know when we'll see that.

Stephanie, now that your first film has been such a hit I assume you're getting a lot of offers. Do you know what you'll be doing next?

SS I'm working on a film in Mexico but it's totally different, it's about independence. It's about a national hero called Morelos, and it's a love story, a love triangle. After that, I don't know. I hope it's something interesting.

GN Will you consider "artistic nudes"?

SS No, only for money. [Laughs] Every actress in Mexico is asked, "would you consider a nude scene" and they always say, "only if it's artistic," but you have to think about the rent, you know?

Gerardo, how much money do you have?

[Checks pockets] I only have two pounds. [Laughs]

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Review - This Is Not a Film (In film nist)

"When hairdressers get bored they start cutting each other's hair," Mojtaba Mirtahmasb tells Jafar Panahi in This Is Not a Film. The two men are filmmakers so, with nothing else to do, they are filming each other as they have this conversation in Panahi's kitchen, with Mirtahmasb holding a professional camera while Panahi records on his iPhone. This is the only type of filming that Jafar Panahi can get away with. In 2010, Panahi was arrested by the Iranian government on vague charges and sentenced to six years in jail, along with a 20-year ban on making films, writing screenplays, giving any media interviews or leaving the country. As he awaits news on his appeal, Panahi is under house arrest, stuck in his apartment while his family are away visiting relatives and noisy New Year celebrations take place outside. He invites his friend, fellow director Mirtahmasb, to come round, and between them they begin to construct something, even if Panahi refuses to call it a film.

What emerges from This Is Not a Film is a fascinating portrait of a restless artistic spirit trying to find an outlet for his creativity. Mirtahmsasb likes the idea of making a documentary that goes “behind the scenes of Iranian filmmakers not making films,” but Panahi has more interesting ideas, and he begins reading from a screenplay he wrote and was in the process of casting before his arrest. The director marks out a rudimentary set on his floor with tape – almost like a mini-Dogville – and then he begins detailing the shots he had worked out, before reading and acting out the various parts. He quickly realises that this idea is pointless, however – "if we could tell a film then why bother making a film?" he asks – and to illustrate this point he plays a scene from Crimson Gold, in which an actor's unexpected action made the scene into something more than it was on the page.

This Is Not a Film eventually develops into something more than its setup seems to offer too, even if Panahi and Mirtahmsasb don't seem to have a clear idea of what they're filming or why. There's little shape to the film, with the pair frequently being distracted by interruptions – calls from Panahi's lawyer, the family's Iguana crawling across the director's shoulder, a neighbour attempting to leave her annoying dog with him while she goes out – but what comes through in these moments is Panahi's need to record all of this. In his films he always enjoyed working with non-actors, so just capturing real life through a lens is important for him.

What comes through more than anything in This Is Not a Film is the sense of humour, playfulness and curiosity that Panahi exhibits and the absence of anger, despite his oppression. This Is Not a Film is a very funny movie, never more so than when a young man turns up to collect Panahi's trash and finds himself becoming the unwitting star of the film, with the director following him on his rounds to the other floors. The man tells us about his work, studies and family, but we never find out his name; in fact, we don't discover the names of anyone involved in the film beyond those of Panahi and Mirtahmsasb (who has now also been arrested) as the closing credits are redacted in a grim reminder of the danger an endeavour like this brings. Panahi may insist that this is not a film, but it is a courageous, witty and vital act of defiance.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Review - Miss Bala

Gerardo Naranjo called his last film I'm Gonna Explode, and with his latest picture he has. Miss Bala is an extraordinary display of directorial verve and dynamism, as Naranjo plunges us into the heart of the ongoing Mexican drug wars. However, the protagonist we follow is not a cop, a dealer or an agent – the central character in Miss Bala is a woman in her early 20's who only wants to compete in the Miss Baja beauty pageant. Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) is a modest, honest woman who lives at home with her father and younger brother. When her friend Suzu (Lakshmi Picazo) informs her of the contest, she defies her father's wishes to attend, and this is the decision that will drag her into a waking nightmare, one realised by Naranjo with a blistering intensity.

The first sign that things are going wrong for Laura occurs when she loses Suzu in a nightclub as a hit is carried out by a local cartel, and this is also the first sign of Naranjo flexing his directorial muscles, with the tense sequence being expertly staged. As Laura washes up in the bathroom, men with guns climb down through the window and burst into the club, taking out revellers in the dark. Terrified, Laura attempts to locate Suzu amid the mayhem without being caught in the crossfire, and Naranjo orchestrates this in a fluid, gripping long take that follows Laura amid the chaos.

Throughout Miss Bala, the director lets the action unfold in these extended, superbly coordinated sequences, maintaining a tight focus on the terrified young woman at the centre of his complex narrative. In one superb scene, Laura asks a friendly-looking policeman for help locating the missing Suzu, and he tells her to get in so he can drive her to the station. Naranjo holds the shot as they drive until we – and she – gradually realise that Laura is being driven further into danger by this corrupt cop. Every level of society is riddled with the corruption and criminality that Laura is exposed to, with even the Miss Baja contest being rigged by those with the power and influence to do so. As she walks out onto the stage, Laura should be feeling immense pride as she achieves her dream, but that dream has been tainted by the bloodshed she has witnessed and the behind-the-scenes machinations that have secured her prize.

As a protagonist, Laura is a strangely passive and reactive figure. Things happen to her, often beyond her understanding, and she tries to deal with it as best she can, with her instincts for self-preservation informing her decisions. Having such an acquiescent character as the focal point of the story may seem unwise, but Naranjo places us in close proximity to her and makes us share her experiences. We quickly empathise with Laura and come to care about her fate, and Stephanie Sigman brings such a sense of raw, real emotion to the role it becomes impossible to remain detached from her trauma. The danger that surrounds Laura feels so real and permanent; embodied by the brilliantly threatening and repellent Noe Hernandez as the gang leader who has Laura in his vice-like grip.

When Laura, disorientated and in shock, staggers out onto the stage and bursts into tears at climax of the Miss Baja contest, the host suggests she has been overcome by the emotion of the occasion and quickly ushers her of stage. But in Miss Bala, Naranjo is determined to peel back the surface of Mexican society to present it as the dark, violent and morally bankrupt world he sees it as. Miss Bala is a thriller – and an exhilarating one – but it is also a potent exposé of a broken, corrosive society that taints anyone who becomes trapped within it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Review - The Kid With a Bike (Le gamin au vélo)

The experience of watching a Dardenne brothers film is an experience that’s unlike any other. Towards the end of their new film The Kid With a Bike, I was holding my breath as 11 year-old tearaway Cyril (astonishing newcomer Thomas Doret) found himself in a series of perilous situations. By this point, I’ve seen enough of the Dardennes’ work to know that this is exactly what they do, and that their ability to spin nerve-grabbing drama out of seemingly humdrum situations is unparalleled in modern cinema. But the question of how exactly the Dardennes achieve this time and time again remains a mystery to me. They are capable of making us care - really care - about the fate of their characters in a manner that very few filmmakers can accomplish, and they do it without blatant appeals for audience empathy.

In fact, the sense of connection that we always feel with a Dardennes protagonist is even more surprising when you consider how often they are presented as troublesome, even unlikable characters. Think of Bruno, the irresponsible father from the Dardennes’ L’Enfant, or taciturn carpenter Olivier, from The Son, who becomes unsettlingly fixated on a young apprentice working for him. In The Kid With a Bike, the main character is a child abandoned by his father and staying in a care home, but this is not a cute little moppet capable of instantly disarming the audience.

Cyril is an intense, aggressive tyke who refuses to bow to authority figures and responds with punches and kicks to any who try to keep him under control. He is a ball of restless energy who races from one location to another and hurtles through doorways, with his habit of being in a state of perpetual motion informing the pace and style of The Kid With a Bike, as the Dardennes' camera races to keep up with the young protagonist. Cyril seems utterly fearless, but there's something so vulnerable about him too, and an aching need for a father figure that he is all too aware of. Cyril refuses to believe that his father has abandoned him, despite all evidence to the contrary (he has changed his phone number and moved without leaving a forwarding address), with the child pleading, "He would have brought my bike," as he clutches onto his futile hope of a reconciliation.

Cyril's father is played by Dardennes regular Jérémie Renier (it's tempting to view The Kid With a Bike as a companion piece, if not a quasi-sequel, to L'Enfant). It is of course an awful thing for a man to reject his own child, but the Dardennes don't judge him, as they refuse to judge any characters in their films. Everyone who appears in a Dardenne brothers movie is a real person, with complicated emotions and valid reasons for behaving the way they do. As Guy washes his hands of his parental responsibilities, another character steps into the breach, with Cécile De France's hairdresser Samantha taking an interest in Cyril after he literally crashes into her during one of his many flights from school. She offers to take care of him on weekends. A tenuous bond develops between them, initially prompted by Samantha's retrieval of Cyril's beloved bike.

The fragile and complex nature of human relationships is what the Dardennes capture better than anyone else. We never know for sure why exactly Samantha feels compelled to take on this damaged, unpredictable, sometimes near-feral boy, but we never doubt for a moment that the feelings she has for him are genuine. Likewise, we fully understand why Cyril becomes so attached to Wes (Egon Di Mateo), the local dealer who exerts a Fagin-like influence over local kids. Coming from the same background as the lonely youngster, Wes is a perfect substitute father figure for Cyril, even if we can smell trouble from the moment he appears on the scene.

I won't tell you exactly what sort of trouble Cyril gets himself into, except for the fact that it develops in a fashion that feels surprising and yet entirely natural. It's also absolutely riveting, with the climactic stretch of the film causing me to gasp and reducing me to tears on more than one occasion, and the Dardennes' ability to affect me so deeply without cheapening their film with a single ounce of sentimentality is testament to their brilliance. The Dardennes invest their films with such compassion, honesty and hopefulness that it becomes impossible to not care about the story being told. They are contemporary cinema's great humanist filmmakers, and as such, they remain in a league of their own.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Review - 360

Fernando Meirelles' 360 is based on Arthur Schnitzler's play Reigen (better known as La Ronde) which was already filmed with consummate wit and elegance by Max Ophüls in 1950, but you probably wouldn't guess that from watching this bloated version. Instead of reminding us of La Ronde – in which a series of relationships drive the plot, eventually circling back to the couple that opened the film – 360 just recalls the other multi-character, multi-narrative films that have hit cinemas in recent years. If you have the chutzpah and intelligence of a PT Anderson or Robert Altman orchestrating a clutch of criss-crossing storylines, then you might end up with a Magnolia or Short Cuts, but the majority of these pictures end up like Babel or Crash – empty contrivance combined with self-importance. Guess where 360 lands on the spectrum.

Believe it or not, 360 is even worse than Crash, because while Crash tended to beat the audience over the head with its points about racism, at least it had points to make. I don't know what the various mundane situations screenwriter Peter Morgan has dreamed up for his equally mundane collection of characters is supposed to signify – love makes the world go round, I guess, or something equally trite.

Morgan (who appears utterly lost when daring to venture outside the safe boundaries of the biopic) begins his globetrotting tale in Vienna, where a businessman (Jude Law) has booked the services of a prostitute (Lucia Sipasova), while his wife (Rachel Weisz), back in London, is hooking up with a Brazilian photographer. When the photographer's girlfriend (Maria Flore) discovers his infidelity, she embarks on a journey back to Brazil, during which she continues to display excellent taste in men by becoming friends with recovering alcoholic Anthony Hopkins and paroled sex offender Ben Foster. Meanwhile, Parisian dentist Jamel Debbouze is harbouring a crush on his Russian assistant (Dinara Drukarova) whose husband – a gangster's driver and general dogsbody – is about to drive to Vienna where he will meet up with the sister of the prostitute who we began the story with.

It would take a screenwriter of rare skill to tie those narrative strands together without making the movie feel false and schematic, but Morgan flounders almost immediately. His storylines are reliant on his characters making various stupid decisions at key moments, like the fragrant Laura's utterly inexplicable desire to invite the sweaty, nervous and aggressive ex-con back to her hotel room, where she fails to get the sex offender into bed (yes, it plays as ridiculously as it sounds). Morgan's dialogue is truly pitiful, clumsily reaffirming the film's themes and structure at regular intervals – "A wise man once said; if there’s a fork in the road, take it" is one example, while another character actually says "we've come full circle" after driving around an Austrian ring road. Anthony Hopkins, who spends much of the film wandering around an airport looking confused, tries his best to sell the big AA meeting speech Morgan provides him with, but it just sounds like another clunky piece of screenwriting shoehorned into the picture.

The actors can't impress because they are lumbered playing characters whom Morgan and Meirelles clearly don't give a damn about. This is evident in the way story threads are carelessly discarded – Law and Weisz disappear from the film for ages before popping up for the insultingly glib ending; I have no idea what happened to that Brazilian guy – and how one-dimensional each characterisation is. Speaking of Brazilians Missing in Action; what happened to the filmmaker who directed City of God? With every film Meirelles makes, Kátia Lund's co-direction on that 2002 picture appears ever more vital. Here the director resorts to banal symbolism (shooting endlessly in mirrors) and his attempts to link scenes in creative ways misfire spectacularly – the little toy plane circling Jamel Debbouze's head being an unintentional comedic highlight. He seems to have as little idea as anyone about what exactly the point of this film is, and he ends up dragging us in circles, while we beg for a fork in the road so we can make our escape.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Review - Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen fans are a nostalgic bunch, and can often be found looking back at the director's considerable body of work only to complain that his films ain't what they used to be. That sense of nostalgia is the central theme in Allen's latest film, and the result is the liveliest picture he has made for some time. Midnight in Paris is the story of an American in Paris, and true to Woody form, he's a neurotic Hollywood screenwriter who dreams of becoming a novelist instead. He's in France looking to be artistically inspired, but he's stuck with an uptight, demanding fiancée (Rachel McAdams), her Republican parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) and her know-it-all ex (Michael Sheen). No wonder Gil (Owen Wilson) yearns for a different set of companions, and for the golden age of Paris life.

Standing idly on a corner one night, as he walks the city's empty streets, Gil gets picked up by an old-fashioned car and whisked back to the 1920's. He wanders into a bar in which Cole Porter is tinkling the ivories, Hemingway (a wonderful, movie-stealing Corey Stoll) is in conversation with Fitzgerald, and Dalí is sitting at a table with Buñuel. In fact, there are famous faces from that bygone age wherever Gil looks, and they immediately take him into their circle, offering words of wisdom as Gil shares his 21st century problems.

It's a delightful conceit, and one that has inspired Allen to make his lightest and most breezily enjoyable picture for many years. The name-dropping and the referential gags are prime Woody material, but they feel much fresher in Midnight in Paris than the Dostoevsky or Sophocles citations have done in his recent heavy-handed morality tales. The films from Allen's oeuvre that Midnight in Paris most recalls are two of my personal favourites – Sweet and Lowdown and The Purple Rose of Cairo – and I think there's something about a period setting that sharpens his focus and fires his creative juices. Visually, the film is his sharpest for a while – with co-directors Johanne Debas and Darius Khondji giving the film a lush sheen that embarrasses some of Woody's recent point-and-shoot efforts – and the director handles the transitions between periods with ease and wit. One of my favourite gags involves the fate of a private eye Gil's concerned parents-in-law employ, as Allen adds multiple levels to the film's time-shifts.

Those additional layers are added in part because Mario Cotillard's Adriana - the mistress of Picasso with whom Gil briefly becomes infatuated – yearns to escape the period that so dazzles Gil and escape into the Belle Époque era inhabited by Toulouse-Lautrec and Gaugain. Just as Woody Allen fans yearn for a return to the director's own belle époque, Adriana wants to enjoy a time that has long passed, but Midnight in Paris goes some way to satisfying all desires – by allowing Adriana to fulfil her dream, and by being a film that recaptures a little of the whimsical magic and humour that Allen is capable of at his best. Of course, the issues that have plagued much of Allen's work remain; some characters, notably the one poor Rachel McAdams is lumbered with, are paper-thin, and his writing is still often clumsily on-the-nose. But it's hard to resist the charms of Midnight in Paris, and hard to deny the pleasure of seeing Woody Allen regain just a little of the spring in his step that we all thought he'd lost.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

The London Film Festival 2011 - Review Round-Up

The 55th London Film Festival opens on Wednesday but I've already spent a week watching films from the programme. Some of these films are embargoed (Dreams of a Life, Hut in the Woods) and some will be reviewed in full closer to their screening dates (We Need to Talk About Kevin, Miss Bala, Wuthering Heights, The Deep Blue Sea), but for now, here's my short take on a few movies that will be showing in London over the coming weeks.


Mathieu Demy – the son of Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy – takes the lead role in Americano, his directorial debut. The film opens with Martin (Demy) receiving the news of his mother's death, prompting a journey from Paris to LA, where she stayed following her separation from Martin's father. He returns to the house he lived in as a child, sifting through her belongings and recalling old memories (signified through shots of Demy in Varda's Documenteur), and trying to connect with the mother he doesn't really know. This is obviously a very personal project for Demy but I found it very hard to connect with Americano. There's something off about the pacing and Demy's rather flat central performance fails to transmit a great deal of emotion. After a maudlin opening hour it comes as something of a relief when Martin discovers a letter suggesting his mother had a very close friendship with his childhood pal Lola and sets off to Tijuana to find her. The movie is enlivened by the Mexican atmosphere and by the arrival of Lola (Salma Hayek), a stripper who performs for Martin and will only talk for cash, but Demy still struggles to find any dramatic spark in this overlong story. For a film purportedly dealing with the messy emotional territory of family memories, the ending – when it finally comes – is too neat by half.

The Awakening

As happy as I am to see the talented Rebecca Hall in a leading role, I wish it was in a better picture, although I did have high hopes for The Awakening, which opens with a scene that's both creepy and clever. Hall plays Florence Cathcart, a writer in 1920's London with a firm belief in scientific logic whose books expose supernatural myths. She is contact by Robert Mallory (Dominic West), the head of a boarding school that has apparently been troubled by ghostly occurrences ever since a young boy died there, and Florence – suspecting that it is nothing more than a schoolboy prank – agrees to investigate. Nick Murphy's film embraces every ghost movie cliché it can think of, but the film is extremely well played by the leads (including Imelda Staunton as a school nurse in awe of Florence) and well paced for much of its first half at least. The problems arise as the movie wears on with Murphy relying on familiar and repetitive tricks to make us jump, and too much of The Awakening consists of Hall stalking about the school's barely-lit corridors as we wait for something to leap out of a dark corner. As the plot ties Florence's own past into events at the school, the overwhelming sense is one of silliness rather than fear, despite Hall's valiant attempts to bring a real sense of emotion and anxiety to her character. There are some neat touches (one particularly clever bit involves a doll's house) but the film too often reminds us of earlier better movies, including The Others, The Orphanage and – above all – The Innocents, against which it pales in comparison.

Corpo Celeste

Alice Rohrwacher's accomplished debut feature takes place in a small Italian town in which the local children are preparing for their Confirmation. One of these children is Marta (the outstanding Yle Vianello), a girl with a curious and rebellious streak, and as Marta undergoes this rite of passage, Corpo Celeste reveals itself to be a sly critique of religious hypocrisy, with priest Don Mario more concerned with the impression he'll make on the visiting bishop, and his potential transfer to a larger parish, than he is with the children's catechism. Until things become a little broader towards the end, Rohrwacher's directorial approach is subtle and natural, her handheld camera following Marta in a manner reminiscent of the Dardennes, and the film features some great location work, with Marta – coming from Switzerland and depicted as an outsider – often observing the distant action below from a windswept rooftop. The interactions between Marta's family, especially her loving, laid-back mother and bossy older sister, are skilfully developed, and the film strikes an impressive balance between its poignant and humorous moments. I was a little disappointed in the way Rohrwacher brought Corpo Celeste to a close, but that's a minor caveat against a film that possesses real heart and intelligence.


On the road that leads to the tiny town of Darwin, a sign reads "No Services Ahead." It was placed there to discourage visitors, which suggests that Nick Brandestini might have received a frosty reception when he ventured out into Death Valley to film Darwin's 35 inhabitants. Instead, he finds a community that's free of prejudice and judgement, and full of people who judge you "not for who you were, or who you might become, but for who you are today." Darwin is a remarkable portrait of town that has become home for people who couldn't fit into mainstream society, or who have pasts that they would rather leave behind, and Brandestini's interviewees openly share their beliefs, their anecdotes and their often painful life stories. He is fortunate to have stumbled across some great characters: Monty, the one-man fire service who has cut his ties with his drug-using children; cantankerous postmistress Susan (who holds the only official job title in the town); and married couple Hank and Connie, who appreciate the fact that their transgendered son can live in peace here. The director shoots them with respect and empathy, allowing them all to have a voice, and he frames these interview segments with wider snapshots of the area; spectacular images of the barren landscape that surrounds them, or the government missile testing facility that sits in perilously close proximity. Darwin is both touching and amusing, but there's a sense of lingering sadness present in much of it too, as the town's youngest inhabitants leave to try and build a future elsewhere and we wonder what kind of future this tiny community has.

Headhunters (Hodejegerne)

Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) is a short man. We know this because it's one of the first thing he tells us about himself, and his insecurity about his height – particularly when he stands next to statuesque girlfriend Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund) – is the catalyst for the crazy events that turn his life upside down. So fearful is Roger of losing Diana that he has resorted to meticulously planned art thefts, supplementing the income from his day job as a headhunter, but even that isn't enough to cover his expensive lifestyle. Fate brings him into contact with businessman Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who seems perfect for the position Roger is trying to fill and who just happens to have a priceless painting hanging in his apartment. It's around this point that all of Roger's best-laid plans collapse and his life begins falling apart, and Headhunters begins to show us that it's a lot smarter and wittier than it in initially appears to be. This film is an adaptation from the novel by Jo Nesbø, often hailed as the successor to the late Stieg Larsson, but Morten Tyldum's movie has more personality and more surprises than any of the recent screen versions of Larsson's Lisbeth Salander trilogy. The film hurtles along at a terrific pace, finding ever more excruciating tortures to put its protagonist through, and it has an appealing tongue-in-cheek tone that offsets some of its more implausible elements. Hennie is a tremendous lead, playing Brown as an arrogant bastard who deserves a nasty comeuppance, and then unexpectedly earning our sympathy as this increasingly beleaguered character loses everything – his car, his clothes, his friends, even his hair. Headhunters may be daft but it's a grand piece of entertainment.

Let the Bullets Fly (Rang zidan fei)

This interminable comedy adventure was an enormous box-office success in China but I can only assume that much of its wit, charm and sense has been lost in translation. The tone is set early on, with a train robbery that is played in a madcap register; all rapid editing, overblown action and even more overblown performances. Director Jiang Wen gives the most subdued turn in the film as bandit Pocky Zhang who disguises himself as the new mayor of Goose Town, which puts him in direct opposition with the town's current ruler Huang (Chow Yun Fat). The subsequent plot – such as it is – involves a great deal of double-crossing and identity-swapping as Pocky and Huang attempt to get the upper hand on each other, but I found it very difficult to muster enough enthusiasm to sustain my interest in the convoluted narrative. I found the Let the Bullets Fly tiresome from its opening moments and the self-consciously wacky tone didn't get any easier to endure as this overlong film trundled on. It's surprisingly light on action – frequently getting bogged down in repetitive conversation – and the comedic aspect of the film is a complete misfire; Jiang Wen seems to believe humour is measured by volume, so there's an awful lot of shouting, face-pulling and characters inexplicably bursting into maniacal laughter at regular intervals. Their high spirits were not mirrored by the audience.

Like Crazy

I get the sense that Like Crazy wants to be this year's Blue Valentine, but it's far too flimsy and underdeveloped for that. This transatlantic romance charts a couple of years in the life of young couple Anna (Felicity Jones) and Jacob (Anton Yelchin), who meet at college in LA. Theirs is a whirlwind romance, only halted by Anna's need to return to England for the summer, but when a foolish immigration hiccup delays her return, the pair have to make some tough decisions about their future; is their relationship based simply on youthful impetuousness, or is there something deeper to it? Cutting back and forth between the UK and the US, director Drake Doremus shoots his film with a great sense of intimacy and an eye for small but telling moments (credit to cinematographer John Guleserian, who finds some beautiful shots), but Like Crazy's style doesn't come packaged with a real sense of emotional weight. The characters are too thinly drawn and too much time is spent observing their relationship rather than being allowed to understand it. Doremus seems to take it as read that we'll believe in this relationship, and if we do then it's primarily down to the efforts of the two leads. Yelchin and Jones have a tangible chemistry and they expertly detail their characters' ups and downs, their moments of rapt infatuation and their guilt-tinged dalliances with other lovers, with Jones in a particular doing some subtle, affecting work. Like Crazy is ambitious effort but one that feels oddly fragile and it's unlikely to linger long in the memory, despite offering numerous moments of pleasure.

Natural Selection

If you've ever seen a quirky independent American road movie (and let's face it, who hasn't?) then Natural selection will hold few surprises. It adheres to a familiar template both in its narrative and its characterisation, but writer-director Robbie Pickering throws in a few twists and idiosyncratic touches that freshen up the formula. Rachael Harris gives a fantastic and hugely likable lead turn as Linda, a devoutly religious 40 year-old who is shocked to discover that her husband has been secretly donating to a sperm bank for over two decades ("I've only been working here since 1988," a nurse replies when Linda asks how often he has been attending the clinic). With Abe (John Diehl) now bedridden, Linda sets out to find the man that he has fathered but never met, which leads her to drug addict and criminal Raymond (Matt O'Leary). The odd-couple adventure that follows sees Linda and Raymond grow in predictable ways – she shakes off her wide-eyed naïveté, he becomes more mature and considerate – but their awkward interactions and the manner in which they deal with the obstacles thrown in their path are often very funny. Pickering's handling of the story is assured, blending moments of Coen-esque craziness with effective character-building interludes. Ultimately, the film doesn't really add up to very much, and too many of its plot developments are signposted in advance, but it is a very charming debut and the two central performances carry it a long way.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Review - Crazy, Stupid, Love

There's a cracker of a plot twist in the second half of Crazy, Stupid, Love. I didn't see it coming and it is executed beautifully. Within minutes of that high point, however, the scene in question has degenerated into farce, with much grappling and shouting, and the cleverness of that particular narrative wrinkle has been foolishly tossed away. This sequence goes some way to summing up the problem with Crazy, Stupid, Love (beyond the horribly punctuated title, I mean). The film is an astonishingly inconsistent piece of work, with every turn of its overstuffed plot just as likely to yield moments of embarrassment as much as moments of truth and laughter. Generally, however, the sense is one of overwhelming contrivance, with the screenplay by Dan Fogelman putting plot before character and creating a series of encounters that occur as artificial narrative constructs rather than incidents developed in an organic fashion.

Crazy, Stupid, Love follows a group of interconnected characters whose romantic entanglements become very tangled indeed over the course of the film's two hours. Cal (Steve Carell) and Emily (Julianne Moore) are a couple growing apart after almost 25 years of marriage, with Emily abruptly announcing that she wants a divorce as they drive home from an unfulfilling meal. Cal reacts to this as any man would, by throwing himself out of the moving car, but when he has regained his senses and started to adjust to single life, he discovers that getting back into the dating game after such a long absence is not easy feat. This is where Jacob (Ryan Gosling) comes in. He spots Cal pathetically drowning his sorrows in a bar and – for some reason – decides to make the rejuvenation of Cal his new project.

You might suspect that this will form the central narrative to Crazy, Stupid, Love, but it's only part of the story. Elsewhere, ladies' man Jacob finds himself being unexpectedly knocked back as he pursues young lawyer Hannah (Emma Stone), Cal and Emily's son Robbie (Jonah Bobo) is infatuated with his teenage babysitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton) while she harbours a crush on the now-single Cal, and Emily is seeing a work colleague (Kevin Bacon). Marisa Tomei also pops up as one of Cal's conquests, but the role she has been given is so excruciating to watch and so far beneath this talented actress that I can't bear to even think about it.

Fogelman is a big believer in comic set-pieces. Robbie makes an embarrassing and implausible declaration of love at school; Jessica takes risqué photos of herself for Cal that you know will end up in the wrong hands; the revelation of Tomei's true identity causes ructions between Cal and Emily; and the film climaxes with a series of sappy speeches at a school graduation. It feels like Fogelman has written his movie around these big moments but the connecting tissue between them is flimsy. The actors do their best with the material, but Carell is stretched in the lead role and the film could have jettisoned many of the scenes involving Robbie and Jessica without losing much of value from the picture. Co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's work on the picture is generally solid but mostly anonymous, which is disappointing after their ribald, daring and often brilliant I Love You Philip Morris.

Crazy, Stupid, Love is a misfire because it fails to make us believe in its characters or their turbulent emotional states, but there is one narrative strand that works like a charm. Whenever Crazy, Stupid, Love spends time with Ryan Gosling or Emma Stone, things seem to click into gear, and their scenes together are a pleasure to watch. Both actors are confident and talented enough to just play their scenes in a natural way, developing an effortless repartee and chemistry, and it's a particular joy to see Gosling on such relaxed and funny form. Everything seems to come so easily to Gosling and Stone; they're the only people involved in Crazy, Stupid, Love who don't have to force it.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Review - Drive

In Drive Ryan Gosling plays a getaway driver who adheres to a strict set of rules. "If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place" he tells a potential employer over the phone, "I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours no matter what," and we quickly see The Driver (for we never learn his name) putting his rules into practice. As the men who have hired him execute their heist, he places a wristwatch on the dashboard and we hear the tick-tick-tick of the seconds ebbing away. When the crooks finally jump back into the car carrying their loot, The Driver pulls away carefully, keeping his speed steady and avoiding any hasty moves that might draw attention to himself. Then he spots a police car.

This is a beautifully directed sequence and one that immediately hooks the viewer into Drive. Nicolas Winding Refn has a superb command of space and a sleek visual sense, and he ratchets up the tension with consummate skill. I could have easily watched a whole film consisting of this kind of cat-and-mouse action, but one of the surprising things about Drive – and there are plenty of surprises – is how little driving there actually is. Beyond that opening sequence, there's a terrific chase following a robbery gone wrong and a quiet romantic interlude in which The Driver takes his neighbour out for a spin, but much of the movie takes place outside cars, which is where some of the film's problems begin. Chief among Drive's issues is the central relationship that complicates The Driver's controlled, attachment-free life. It's meant to provide Refn's film with its emotional core, but I didn't buy it for a second.

It begins when The Driver meets and falls in love with his neighbour Irene (played by Carey Mulligan), who has a young son that she's currently raising alone as her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in jail. When Standard is released and some thugs come after him for money, The Driver inexplicably agrees to assist him in a robbery to help pay off his debts. I say inexplicably because I never felt the kind of bond between Gosling and Mulligan that would encourage a man like The Driver to risk everything for this woman. Irene is a weak character and Mulligan is not the actress capable of imbuing her with the depth and spark required to make us believe in Gosling's sudden infatuation. Refn includes numerous shots of the pair gazing into each other's eyes in the hope that something will emerge from these silent encounters, but for me, the relationship between Irene and The Driver remained a hollow element at the film's centre.

In fact, Drive is much better when it focuses on the supporting players. As a crime boss, Albert Brooks is a menacing hoot and he shares a couple of hugely entertaining exchanges of dialogue with a scenery-chewing Ron Perlman. They're a pair of down and dirty crooks with little regard for loyalty and friendship when somebody becomes a problem. Bryan Cranston also excels as Shannon, the crippled mechanic who provides The Driver with his cars and his jobs; he's a loser with big dreams that you know he's never going to achieve. All of these characters are archetypes of the noir genre but Cranston, Brooks and Perlman invest them with an idiosyncratic personality and a real sense of life, something that I never felt Mulligan or Gosling managed to do (and poor Christina Hendricks barely gets a chance to do anything with her tiny role).

You have to wonder how interested Refn really is in the human element of Drive. He seems so much more at home with the retro, neon aesthetic and the sudden bursts of (frankly rather off-putting) ultra-violence. It's impossible to deny that Drive is gorgeously put together, and on a scene-by-scene basis it would be regarded as one of the films of the year, but while style can be its own reward, these stunning individual moments don't cohere into anything that satisfies overall and it's hard to define what the point of the film is, exactly. There are pleasures to be had here, but for long stretches of the movie I just wanted the moody protagonist to get into his car and drive.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Review - Warrior

We know how Warrior is going to end almost as soon as the movie begins, but that sense of inevitability doesn't dilute the film's power. This is the story of two estranged brothers who both compete in an international mixed martial arts (or MMA) tournament and nobody will be surprised by the fact that they end up facing each other in the climactic duel. We know exactly where the film is going, but it's hard to gripe about its predictable nature when we're so emotionally involved in the onscreen drama. In fact, there's something comforting about clichés and familiar narrative trajectories when they are delivered with a genuine sense of skill and conviction, and Warrior is a textbook example of genre dynamics working for a picture rather than against it.

Like David O Russell's The Fighter, this film revolves around familial tensions. Tommy (Tom Hardy) is an ex-soldier who left his squadron in mysterious circumstances to return home to Pittsburgh. He find his father Paddy (Nick Nolte) a changed man; refusing his son's offer of a drink, Paddy announces that he has been sober three years, with the suggestion being that his boozing was a key element in the family's past heartbreak. Paddy has no contact at all with his other Brendan (Joel Edgerton), a teacher and family man, but all three men are drawn to the same tournament. Brendan, a former fighter, has already been earning some cash through illicit, late-night bouts, but he needs the prize money this competition offers to save his home from repossession. Tommy wants his father to coach him into shape, but it's hard to see why he needs such training – he walks straight into the gym and lays out their top competitor with one punch.

Tommy is a coiled spring of pure, animalistic aggression. He storms into the ring with none of the posing or backing music the other fighters employ, and after ferociously tearing into his opponent, he storms straight back out, not even hanging around to hear the referee call the result. Hardy is terrifyingly believable as the snarling Tommy but it's Edgerton who really impresses, with his more textured character allowing for a more nuanced and empathetic performance. He's the underdog who makes good in the grand Rocky tradition, and his scenes are lent more colour by the excellent portrayals of those around him – his wife (Jennifer Morrison), trainer (Frank Grillo), school principal (Kevin Dunn) and his excitable students.

The film has been co-written and directed by Gavin O'Connor, whose mediocre previous features didn't hint at the kind of control and storytelling sense that he displays here. He impressively utilises his locations – both the working-class Pittsburgh background his characters hail from and the Atlantic City backdrop to the main event – and he makes every scene count in some way. The film maintains a remarkable sense of narrative momentum, with the second half of the movie dividing time between emotional confrontations outside the ring and the vicious, thrillingly depicted fights inside it. Warrior runs to 139 minutes, which initially seems excessive, but it doesn't feel overlong when you genuinely care about the outcome of each bruising encounter.

We care because it feels like Warrior possesses a beating heart beneath all of that brawn, and that's exemplified by nobody more than Nick Nolte, as the patriarch desperate to make amends for his past mistakes. There's a devastating authenticity to Nolte's portrayal of Paddy, with so much pain and regret on show in his watery eyes and halting delivery. Combined with Edgerton, Hardy and the gripping, richly atmospheric fight sequences it creates an extraordinarily powerful brew. Conventional it may be, but Warrior is also irresistible.